3 books about reading

I am so proud of everybody for the response to my most recent post. You’ve really shown the positives that can come of people coming together on the Internet. It brings a tear to the eye! I’m excited about my Furrowed Middlebrow books arriving, and will certainly report back on what I think of the books.

But for today – let’s look at some books about reading. This has certainly my go-to comfort-genre of choice over the past year or so. I picked up quite a few in my trips to America, and I am endlessly entertained, informed, and charmed by them – thankfully there are plenty more to read on my shelves. As I often turn to them when I want episodic distraction, I don’t always get around to making proper reviews of them – so I’ve grouped three together for mini-reviews. Sound ok?

Why I Read (2014) by Wendy Lesser

why-i-readThe subtitle to this one is ‘the serious pleasure of books’, and Lesser is certainly not taking the role of the average reader. She wears her education heavily (if that is the opposite of ‘lightly’ in this instance), and it becomes rather farcical how often she mentions Henry James, BUT it’s still an enjoyable and extremely thought-provoking look at the different elements of reading. She divides her chapters in ‘Character and Plot’, ‘The Space Between’, ‘Novelty’, ‘Authority’, ‘Grandeur and Intimacy’, and ‘Elsewhere’ – make of those what you will – and her thoughts and arguments cover great swathes of territory and many writers and nationalities.

I would certainly need to re-read to familiarise myself afresh with her lines of argument, and this is closer to a scholarly book than most of the books-about-reading I enjoy, but is still certainly accessible to the non-scholar. Indeed, it would be infuriating in a scholarly context, because there are no footnotes or referencing

Why does she read? The whole book is, of course, building that answer – but I also liked (if did not agree with) the summing-up of sots of ‘I read […] for meaning, for sound, for voice – but also for something I might call attentiveness to reality, or respect for the world outside oneself’. I’d certainly recommend Why I Read – and it is also beautifully designed and printed – but somebody should have a word in her ear about how often one can get away with throwing in Henry James. I shall always wryly smile in recollection of ‘Very little in the world can compare with the experience of reading, or even rereading, The Golden Bowl, but we cannot always be reading The Golden Bowl‘. Well quite.

The Art of the Novel (2015) edited by Nicholas Royle

art-of-the-novelI asked for this collection of essays for my birthday last year – thanks Rhiannon! – because my friend (can I say that on the strength of meeting once?) Jenn Ashworth has an essay in it. You may recall I raved about Fell earlier in the year; in this collection she writes on ‘Life Writing / Writing Life’. Everybody in the collection discusses different angles on how to write, from genre (Leone Ross on magical realism; Livi Michael on historical fiction) to broader concerns like place, details, plot twists, etc. Besides Ashworth, I’d only heard of a handful of the authors (Alison Moore, Stella Duffy, and – believe it or not – two Nicholas Royles, whom I’d got confused on a previous occasion) but I am hardly the benchmark for knowing about modern literature. Only one contributor, one of the Nicholas Royles in fact, takes a weird tangent – into the concept of the death of the author – which has little to do with practical advice.

This was one of the books I read in Edinburgh, and it was entertaining – I was reading it more out of interest than seeking advice – but I did particularly like how each essayist ended their section with a list of books they admired or recommended. It was interesting how often Muriel Spark’s excellent book The Driver’s Seat came up.

The Whole Five Feet (2009) by Christopher R. Beha

the-whole-five-feetThe most personal of the three books featured today, and the most unusual in concept (is there a word for ‘gimmicky’ that isn’t negative?) – and by far the longest subtitle. *Clears throat* ‘What the great books taught me about life, death, and pretty much everything else’.

The great plants in question are the Harvard Classics – Beha decides that he will try to read all of the Harvard Classics in a year. They supposedly take up five feet on a shelf, hence the title. For those not au fait with the series (as I was not), it was created in 1909 to be the best literature, fiction and non-fiction, made available to the everyman, in 51 chunky volumes. It is quite an unusual collection of works; the blurb describes it as ‘from Plato to Dante, Shakespeare to Thoreau’, but it also includes some more idiosyncratic choices – like Two Years Before the Mast, an account of sailing by Richard Henry Dana, Jnr.

What makes this book so engrossing is how well Beha combines the reading experience with personal accounts of his own life – losses and illness chiefly – that accompany the year, writing with a empathetic dexterity that makes the reader warm to him and care deeply. The actual responses to the books become less important as The Whole Five Feet continues, and it ultimately seems more of an endurance test than an engagement with literature. In some ways, this is more memoir than a book-about-reading, but it is none the worse for that.

6 thoughts on “3 books about reading

  • October 21, 2016 at 2:40 am
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    I’m a bit ambivalent about this genre. I’ve read a couple of them, and enjoyed aspects of them, but really, I’d rather read a book than a book about reading books, if you know what I mean.
    I have two exceptions: the first is Great Books by David Denby and it’s so well-known I don’t need to say much more about it except that it’s a really good reading guide because it discusses the reading list from Columbia University and it just makes you want to read everything. The other exception is The Burning Library by Geordie Williamson who’s a leading critic in Australia. His book is about how we in Australia have been neglecting great classic works of Australian literature and how scandalous it is that most of them are out of print. He discusses in depth enough of the books I’ve read for me to trust what he says about the ones I haven’t read, and I have made it my business to look out for them In second-hand bookshops. The great thing about this book is that it inspired Michael Heyward of Text Publishing here in Melbourne to release a series called Text Classics, all reissues of long out of print titles and – not really surprisingly since they’re all great books – it has been a commercial success and they are about to celebrate their 100th title in this series.

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  • October 21, 2016 at 8:40 am
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    Oh! Oh! Death of the author, and just when I’ve written up the first draft of my research project. How long is that section? Is it something you could photograph or scan and email me or a whole massive essay? Or is it just a great book I should buy anyway?

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  • October 21, 2016 at 10:05 am
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    I like the sound of the last two, not so sure about the first – I really *MUST* read The Driving Seat (not as if I don’t own a copy!). I love books about books and reading too – have just bought ‘Bookshops’ by Jorge Carrión which Susan O has just reviewed today.

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  • October 21, 2016 at 10:16 pm
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    My only issue with these types of books is that sometimes they give a little too much of plot aspects of certain titles. I know that some readers don’t consider their enjoyment of a book to be lessened if they know who dies at the end or who marries…but I like to be carried away by stories, so I really don’t want to know. I did buy The Shelf based on your recommendation…I just haven’t gotten around to reading it yet!

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  • October 22, 2016 at 5:13 am
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    Apparently Lally’s comments on the Furrowed Middlebrow books have all been removed and replaced by someone called Vanessa. The reviews have changed a little but they are still all very negative. One for each book. Sad really that someone can be so vindictive.

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